It might be hard to swallow, but you can’t expect different results if you keep doing the same. Easy to accept, but it’s still tough to practice. It can be difficult to shake up the status quo when you juggle daily life, so it is much easier to stick with the same exercise routine you know and enjoy.
But this mindset just adds to your frustration of not seeing new results from your hard work. You know something needs to change, but what? And how do you go about it?
Breaking the exercise plateau can be easier than what you think. “The reality is that ALL muscles work together to create and control movement. Making a small change in body position, stance, hold, equipment, among others variables, can change how forces are transmitted and used throughout the body,” explains Pete McCall, CSCS, personal trainer at Function First in San Diego.
Indeed, just a simple adjustment here and there—like where you place your feet in a push-up—can make the same exercise harder by changing the stress and thereby bring about different results to your workout.
“Muscles are designed to work in a manner that most efficiently carries out a given movement pattern,” adds Brad Schoenfeld, MSc, CSCS, CSPS, NSCA-CPT, author of The MAX Muscle Plan. “When you change an exercise, the body will seek an alternative way to best perform the movement. This can involve changes in recruitment of different fibers in a muscle, engagement of different synergists and/or stabilizers, and other internal adjustments. Bottom line is that by continually varying movements you help to optimize muscle development and physical function.”
Six Easy Exercise Swaps
The payback of the following exercise variations are plenty. By performing these easy swaps, you can expect more muscles recruited and/or different recruitment patterns, higher neuro-muscular stimulation (a must for power skills and reaction time) and greater caloric expenditure. Remember, nothing fires up metabolism more than moving out of your “comfort zone.”
1. Decrease the base of support: the greater the base of support, the more stabilization your body has. So when doing a shoulder press or any other exercise standing up, if your legs are further apart, the core and other stabilizer muscles work less. There’s nothing wrong with this—it’s instinctive to seek stability or good balance and a highly stable posture can often allow you to better isolate a muscle or lift a heavier weight. But bring the legs closer and you challenge other muscles to steady the body while making the exercise harder. This applies to other exercise in which you stand, such as bicep curls, free weight triceps extensions, and other shoulder moves. Likewise, doing push-ups and/or planks with the feet closer together makes the exercise tougher to perform.
Example: Kneeling DB Front Shoulder Raise
2. Switch to unilateral and/or asymmetrical exercises: “Unilateral movements can help to overcome the “bilateral deficit” whereby reduced neural drive is seen in a movement that requires the use of both limbs. Thus, you can potentially achieve greater force production in the individual limb,” says Schoenfeld.
The National Council on Strength and Fitness (NCSF) states that “the best way to correct the problems with symmetrical work (think regular squat) is to use asymmetrical exercises. Although unilateral can be argued to be asymmetrical there are underlying differences.”
Unilateral training, such as single lunge carrying the dumbbell at the same side in which the leg is flex—is most useful for improving range of motion and stability in the muscles around the joint. In comparison, asymmetrical training—like the same single lunge, but carrying the dumbbell on the opposite arm of the leg that is flex—enhances stabilizers across the kinetic chain, according to the NCSF.
From unilateral cable pull-down, single leg squat to one arm cable row, you can work every limb at a time. To increase difficulty, add the asymmetrical component by working opposite body limber parts such as the right leg with the weight on the left hand.
Examples: Unilateral DB deadlift (in this exercise you work one leg at a time; however, you have the weight in both hands.)
Unilateral and asymmetrical DB deadlift (here you work one leg at a time, but the stabilizer muscles have to work harder due that the load is in the opposite arm.)
3. Swap DB for Barbells: when working on unilateral exercises, try barbells instead of DB for exercises like one arm chest press, shoulder press, bicep curls, lunges, etc. This switch distributes the external load across a longer line throughout the pivot point of the lever. The result: the muscles work harder to overcome the same weight.
Example: Unilateral barbell shoulder press
4. Have the weight far from your body: Muscles act through the bony levers of the skeleton. So having the load far from the muscle exerts the greatest force thus the difficulty of the movement increases. This is why a lateral dumbbell shoulder raise feels hard even when using a light weight. Exercises, such as lunges with extended arms DB or medicine ball rotations, overhead DB lunges or even planks positioning your arms further than the shoulder levels make the trick.
Example: Overhead barbell squat
5. Go decline: when positioning your feet up on a bench, the body weight load is greater, which right away means additional muscle work. In fact, while in a regular push-up position you lift around 64% of your body weight, but when doing the same exercise with your feet on a bench, you increase the load to 74%. The same can be done with mountain climbers—place the foot up on a bench and bring the knee to the opposite arms in a continuous and controlled manner-.
Example: Decline push-ups
6. Jump!: plyometrics are exercises that rely on the stretch-recoil characteristic of the muscles. This means the muscle is stretched to rapidly and forcefully contract and explode. These types of moves, overload the fast twitch muscle fibers (the powerful muscle fibers) and the neuro-muscular system to increase strength and power. Equally, due to the high energy demand of the exercises—the load can be around 10 times your body mass—the impact on the metabolism during and after the workout raises significantly.
Example: squat jumps to split jumps: Perform a squat jump to land in a lunge and then quickly jump and switch the legs to land on the opposite leg. Make sure you do the exercise fluidly and rhythmically. To fully take advantage of plyometrics you must move fast and in control.